Bluegrass in the Foothills 2008

(Plus Hobbs Grove Bluegrass)

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008 : For the fourth time in five years, Iím in Plymouth CA, on Highway 49, the Golden Chain Highway, for a weekend of bluegrass. Larry and Sondra Baker took over this festival in 2003, and their series, Bluegrassiní in the Foothills, has been going for six years now.

As I usually do, I set out on Wednesday, so I would have a full day tomorrow to do whatever. I got here around 2 p.m., craving lunch, since I had started the day with just a couple of toaster pastries and a small glass of milk. I did a minimal setup, had lunch, finished setting up, wandered around a bit, did some reading, and wandered some more. I ran into Mona and Phillip and their two daughters from Lemoore, folks I have known as bluegrass friends since the first Parkfield Festival in 2001.

They introduced me to a friend of theirs who has a fantastic, well-restored 1950s era milk truck, which has a sink and sleeping area, and too many really cool features to describe. It also has a big block Olds engine with four-wheel drive. Itís a Divco, standing for Detroit Industrial Vehicle Company, and is the same design that they initiated in the 1930s, remaining unchanged till they stopped production in the 70s. This one is actually made from parts of two trucks, with a lot of hours of welding and other assembly work.

Itís been a very nice day, around 73 when I left Clovis, and never over 78, and now at 6:45 itís about 68 degrees. It is supposed to stay in the low 80s all weekend, so it should be perfect festival weather.

I am a little bit handicapped in that I did not bring my bicycle. Iím still in the process of moving, and brought the bike to my new place. Normally my truck stays at the old place and I go back and forth in the Honda. I didnít want to drive the pickup across town just to get the bike to the trailer, so I decided to do without it. Thatís not really a problem here, since itís a short walk to the stage area, but at some other locations, such as Parker and Huck Finn, I would be doing more walking than I like.

Thursday, September 18: On my first visit to this area in 2004, I went from the festival to Indian Grinding Rock State Park, about 25 miles away, and spent the night. This year I decided to go there for the day. The park features a reconstructed Miwok village, including a large roundhouse built in the 1970s. But the main attraction is a large, mostly flat rock which contains over 1,100 grinding holes where the natives ground acorns into meal over several thousand years.

I was fortunate today to arrive just as a ranger was leading a group of school children on a tour of the park, so I followed along and listened. After talking about the rock and the cedar bark houses (umuucha), we went into the roundhouse, which is normally off limits to non-Indians. We observed the four rules of being quiet and respectful (quite a challenge for a group of fourth graders), not touching the four sacred oak poles that support the roof, not walking on the dance floor, and leaving any negative thoughts outside, symbolized by a clockwise turn as we entered. Also, no photos are allowed. This roundhouse is much larger than the original ones, which were designed for villages of 30 to 50 people, and has a stone and mortar half wall, which would have been earth in the originals. Other concessions to safety and modern convenience include a rear door and a fire extinguisher.

The four poles are actually large oak trunks well over a foot in diameter, and once set in place, are never supposed to be touched again by anyone. They represent several things Ė the four seasons, the four ages of man, and the four necessities of life, which the children were able to name without any prompting Ė food, water, air and fire.

This area is the site of the annual Chawíse Big Time, a native gathering that will take place next weekend. Although ďrespectful visitorsĒ are welcome, it is primarily a time of singing, dancing and other traditional games for the benefit of the natives, and celebrates the acorn-gathering season.

All in all it was an unexpected educational and interesting experience, and I got more than my money's worth for the $6.00 day use fee.

After the roundhouse, I visited the museum, which contains among other artifacts a remarkable collection of woven baskets from various California tribes. Then I drove to the nearby Black Chasm Cavern, a National Natural Landmark. I learned from the attendant at the gift shop/ticket booth that it is a vertical cave with many steps, viewing platforms, and a temperature of 59 degrees. Since everything but the T-shirt and shorts I was wearing was back at the trailer, I decided it was not time for cave tour, and headed back to Plymouth.

I ate an early dinner, set up my chairs at the audience area, and visited a while with Walt from Santa Barbara, a regular at most festivals, whom we met at our first Parkfield festival in 2001.

Iím finishing this dayís entry at about the same time as yesterday, with the temperature also about the same. It was probably a little over 80 today, and hopefully the predicted cooling trend will arrive on time, since my chairs are in a spot that will be mostly sunny. I say chairs in the plural because I set up a couple for my old classmates, Bryce and Alma Green, who are planning to come on Saturday, and stay in a motel.

Saturday, September 20: At this point in time I no longer go to bluegrass festivals just ďbecause they are there,Ē maybe with the exception of Parkfield. So I look at the lineup and see if there is someone I just have to see. In this case, there were four groups that attracted me.

Number one was Don Rigsby and Midnight Call. Don has been in a number of other groups, including Longview, a so-called super group that draws its members from other active bands, including James King. I have heard a little of Donís work on Longview CDs and XM Radio, but have never seen him (still havenít as this is written, so a judgment will be entered later).

At this yearís Parkfield festival I talked with a couple who spoke glowingly of New Found Road, a relatively new group that I have not seen, and heard very little of. They appeared last night, and exceeded all expectations, with an outstanding lead singer.

The other two groups are ones I have seen, The Gibson Brothers and Michael Cleveland. The Gibsons are from upstate New YorkĖ extreme upstate, within a few miles of Canada. Theyíve been performing since they were kids, but only started getting major notice in the last few years. I saw them at Parker, but from a long distance in a crowded and noisy setting. Here I have already had two opportunities for a much better experience. All festivals have workshops conducted by some of the musicians, but I almost never attend since I am not going to learn the mandolin nor get better on the guitar. However, the brothers were doing a vocal workshop, and while I donít think I will become a better singer unless I find a way to make time go backwards, I thought it could be interesting. It turned out to be a very intimate setting with a dozen or so fans sitting six feet from Eric and Leigh and essentially chatting about music. They sang about four songs, and it was great to hear them harmonize with just their guitars, no amplification and no other instruments. Their stage show later in the evening was also everything I expected.

Michael Cleveland played fiddle with Rhonda Vincent and a couple of other groups before forming his own band, Flamekeeper, which I saw in Bakersfield two or three years ago. Michael is the five-time IBMA fiddle player of the year, and nominated for a sixth award, and earns every one of them. His band is also top quality, with two excellent lead singers.

As to the rest, the only other nationally known group yesterday was Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain, a group thatís just released their second CD after two years together. The band was good and she has a powerful voice, but I thought the backup musicians played too much and too loud during the vocals.

Each Plymouth festival features four ďemerging artistĒ bands. They donít get paid, but the winner returns the following year for a paid performance. One of these bands was not ready for public appearances (in my not so humble opinion), but the others were all good. The guys I met and photographed at Parkfield, Gritchy Magrally, were outstanding and went over big with the crowd, but did not win the prize, as I thought they should have.

The weather was pretty good yesterday, with clouds drifting over all day, a bit too warm when it was sunny, and just right when a cloud blocked the sun. This morning it is completely overcast, reminding me of my first year here when a cloudy morning turned to mid-morning sprinkles and heavy rain, but I will try to hold on to the positive attitude I developed at the roundhouse.

Sunday, September 21: Yesterdayís clouds rolled away almost with the first notes of bluegrass, and the day was sunny and quite warm, as was today. The music had its ups and downs, but overall was great. Bryce and Alma and their son and daughter-in-law arrived around noon, and stayed nearly till the end of the day, but did not return today. Like me, they were all greatly impressed with Michael Cleveland.

Don Rigsby was not as good as I expected yesterday, but he had an excuse. They left home (Tennessee, I believe) at 1 a.m. eastern time (10 p.m. Friday night here), had a long flight with a couple of stopovers before landing in Sacramento (38 miles from Plymouth). Then due to a mix-up in directions, they went to the promoterís home in Copperopolis, making their trip from Sacramento140 miles long. Although they were late, they switched with another group, so all was well, except for the fact that they were probably exhausted.

They redeemed themselves today, and sounded better, playing an extra 20 minutes or so at the end of the event, even though the audience was down to about 30 people.

Other groups yesterday and/or today: Sawmill Road is a new group of long-time players that appeared here last year, as well as at Parker in March. They do a fine job, leaning a bit to the folky side. The Anderson Family, mom, dad, and four kids ranging from 6 to 14, were here the last two years. At their first appearance they were very unpolished, but they have developed quite a bit since then, with the guitar, fiddle and mandolin playing of the three oldest kids sounding quite good. The vocals are still not even close to professional, but definitely improving.

Last yearís emerging artist winner, Rita Hosking, appeared Friday and Saturday, and was good but nothing special.

The Bluegrass Brothers have been at many festivals Iíve attended, and while they are a professional group, they are more enthusiastic than polished. This is not to say that they donít put on an excellent show, which they do.

The Kids on Bluegrass presentation this morning was the usual mixed bag. The newer performers all did OK, but the three kids, age 12 to 14, whoíve been here each year and who apparently play together throughout the year are only a couple of years or so away from being an emerging artist band. They did a very strong song that they had written, and another unfamiliar but very challenging number, making it the best Kids on Bluegrass Iíve seen. There was also a teenage girl, probably 14 to 16, who sang three songs and is ready to be the lead singer for a top level amateur group. (2015 update: The three boys became 3/4 of OMGG, a very popular and successful group. They play occasional reunion dates, but several of the guys have gone off to college).

Now the stage is coming down, the vendors are packing up their goodies, supper is finished, the dishes are washed, and Iíve done a few things to get ready to go, which I will do tomorrow at the usual time Ė when I get around to it.

--Dick Estel, September 2008

October Update: The weekend after Plymouth, the annual Hobbs Grove Bluegrass Festival was held near Sanger, CA, a little over 20 miles from my house. Despite the proximity, I have not been able to attend this festival as much as I'd like. Previously sponsored by the local Kings River Bluegrass Association, this year it was taken over by the California Bluegrass Association, providing better and more widespread publicity. When I went for one day two years ago, there were maybe 15 or 20  RVs; this year the parking lot was full, meaning 70 to 100 or more.

The festival setting was fairly sunny in the past, but the spindly little trees we observed the first time we went in 2002 have filled out and grown up, and now there is shade over virtually all the audience area all day long.

I was able to attend only the Saturday afternoon and evening program, but this included the bands I was most interested in. Only a couple of them were new, and these were fairly ordinary, although it was fun to see Frank Sollivan, presenter of the Kids on Bluegrass program, as a performer with Country Grass.

The big draw for me was the Kathy Kallick Band. She was a pioneer on the California bluegrass scene, and a founder of The Good Old Persons, along with Laurie Lewis. I had seen her at the Mariposa festival in the late 1990s, but not since. A special treat was the sensational Dobro player Sally Van Meter, who played in Kathy's band in the past.

I was also glad to see once again local band Baloney Creek, Eric Uglam and Sons; and the excellent traditional Del Williams Band, all of whom were at Parkfield in May.



Cedar bark houses (umuucha) The Roundhouse Grinding holes
More holes Ancient oak tree Woodpecker holes in bark of oak
Informational sign Gail Fitch's 1955 Milk Truck Four Finger String Band
Gritchy Magrally Natural Drift Nell Robinson & Red Level
Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain Carrie Eric & Leigh Gibson
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper Marty picks with Michael Anderson Family
Rita Hosking Sawmill Road New Found Road
Don Rigsby & Midnight Call The Bluegrass Brothers The Youngest Brother
Frank Sollivan Kids on Bluegrass: Nate Schwartz,
Marty Varner, Max Schwartz
More kids
        2008 Plymouth Festival program cover          
Hobbs Grove Festval
Country Grass Sam Criswell & Groundspeed Baloney Creek
The Grasskickers Kathy Kallick Band Kathy
Eric Uglam & Sons Del Williams Band         

Related Links

Miwok Indians Indian Grinding Rock State Park Black Chasm Cavern
Plymouth Dick's Bluegrass T-Shirt Photos Dick's Bluegrass Links
New Found Road Don Rigsby & Midnight Call Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper Sawmill Road Gibson Brothers
Bluegrass Brothers Rita Hosking Nell Robinson
Kids on Bluegrass Natural Drift Del Williams Band
Eric Uglam Baloney Creek Grasskickers
Kathy Kallick Band    OMGG

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Baloney Creek

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